Archive for the ‘Publication News’ Category

Talking about Temple Alley Summer

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

Avery Fischer Udagawa is the translator of a middle grade novel just out from Yonder, an imprint of Restless Books. Temple Alley Summer was written by Sachiko Kashiwaba, a well-known author in Japan. Her book The Mysterious Village Veiled in Mist influenced the Studio Ghibli movie Spirited Away.

Today, I’m talking with Avery about her work on Temple Alley Summer (TAS). In the past months, I’ve had the opportunity to do a few of these interviews. Each one brings new discoveries, and I’m enjoying it so much that I’m about ready to give up doing translation altogether and just READ translated books so I can talk to the translators about them.

TAS was thoroughly engrossing, and I sailed through the 200-plus pages. There’s no way a brief synopsis without spoilers can do it justice, but let me give it a try. What begins as a story about modern Japanese schoolchildren moves quickly into an old neighborhood legend and a mysterious statuette that can bring people back from the dead. Fifth-grade Kazu witnesses such an event and becomes privy to the truth behind Akari, a girl who suddenly appears in his class. If Akari’s story were not enough, Kazu and Akari end up in pursuit of another, older and darker fantasy, an unfinished story in a magazine that Akari read in her first life, and which Kazu is determined to find the conclusion to. The reader gets to read the story along with Kazu, and is left hanging as he searches for its author. This story within a story keeps the reader glued to the page until the very end. What happens to Akari? And what about Adi in the other story? Rest assured, all the puzzles are solved, but that’s all you’re going to get from me!

Sachiko Kashiwaba, author of Temple Alley Summer

Deborah: Avery, you were interviewed a year ago about another story by Sachiko Kashiwaba that you translated, “Firstclaw,” online at Words Without Borders. In the interview, you also talked about your impressions of TAS, so I encourage blog readers to visit that posting too.

You describe TAS as “a middle grade novel that showcases Kashiwaba’s gift for writing fairy tales, Japan-inspired fantasy, and contemporary realism, all in 52,000 engrossing words.” Can you tell me how you came to meet Kashiwaba and translate this book?

Avery: I met Sachiko Kashiwaba through translating another of her works for Tomo: Friendship Through Fiction: An Anthology of Japan Teen Stories. The opportunity to translate for Tomo and the introduction to Kashiwaba both grew out of involvement in SCBWI Japan (then called SCBWI Tokyo) and its network, and the impetus to translate TAS came from a competition connected with the Asian Festival of Children’s Content 2016. I asked the author’s permission to submit a translation of TAS to the competition and then, later, to English-language publishers.

Avery Fischer Udagawa, translator of Temple Alley Summer

Deborah: I’d like to look at the different layers of the story. The story begins with Kazu, his family, and a day at his typical Japanese school. I imagine the author wanting to bring her Japanese readers in close with a familiar setting before leading them into the supernatural. I find it difficult to translate beginnings of books that involve Japanese school life. To me, it’s always the most difficult part of a translation. The aspects of Japanese society familiar to people living here are the parts that I as a translator have difficulty explaining for non-Japan-based readers in a way that doesn’t get in the way of the original.

In this case, too, there was a certain amount of school and household terminology to get through to discover the old town map with the name Kimyō Temple—an essential plot element. After that, the story takes off. The cast of characters from Kimyō Temple Alley and the somewhat eccentric former resident, together with Kashiwaba’s fantasy, are all described—and of course translated—thoroughly and engagingly. Every time I thought I had the plot figured out, it took a step in a different direction. Any comments on parts of the translation you found more challenging, and parts that were more fun to do?

Avery: Thank you for your kind words about the translation! The opening was indeed a challenge, due to the setting’s many Japan-specific features. Young readers of English cannot be expected to know that class sections in every grade at Japanese school are numbered, or that these sections routinely subdivide into numbered small groups, or that students will remove their street shoes at school and wear indoor shoes, which they may take home during vacations. The early chapters contain many references to such details, which I needed to try to include without stopping the story to explain. It comforts me that you, too, have struggled with this! I would love to see enough Japan school stories become known in English that a bit of background knowledge can be assumed.

Another challenge, which actually arose after translating, has been conveying that religious practices and objects play a role in TAS yet do not make the story religious—just as religious activities are part of life for many people in Japan who are otherwise secular. Everyone in a community might turn up for a festival at a temple to the bodhisattva Kannon, yet not venerate Kannon otherwise. A small statuette of the Buddha might be experienced as simply a household object. A family altar, more than being a site of worship, might imply something closer to missing departed relatives.

Explaining the role of religion in Japan is hard even for scholars and for Japanese themselves. I have tried to convey that TAS unfolds in a culture that has many religious influences, which nonetheless is often nonreligious. And TAS is not a religious novel, any more than The Letter for the King and The Secrets of the Wild Wood by Tonke Dragt, translated by Laura Watkinson, are religious due to including a chapel, a monastery, a knight saying a prayer, and so on.

Deborah: This is an excellent point. As someone who has been in Japan for decades, I tend to forget about the flexibility of Japanese society when it comes to religion and how unusual it can seem.

Avery: As for especially fun parts of TAS to translate, I relished working with dialogue and narrative voice to bring out the relationships between characters. The love/hate connection between fifth-grade Kazu and his 83-year-old neighbor Ms. Minakami was fascinating to translate, because rough equivalents of their words rarely served anything like the same function in English. For example, in a spot where Kazu harps on Ms. Minakami to do something, she says urusai! to him. I could hardly render this literally as “(You’re) noisy!” because the issue is Kazu’s nagging, not his loudness. Nor could I express urusai! with the commonly used but overly blunt “Shut up!” I needed to fashion some English that preserved the level of respect a child and an elder in the same tight-knit neighborhood would show to each other, even when fighting mad. And they really do get fighting mad!

Deborah: So how did it work out in the end? What did they say to each other in English?

Avery: “Kazu. You’re driving me crazy,” she said on the phone. (かずくん、うるさい!)

“Crazy is as crazy does…” [Kazu] replied. (自業自得ってやつです。)

Deborah: Well done! Both the difficult-to-translate urusai (drive me crazy) and jigō-jitoku (crazy is as crazy does) with one fell swoop.

Avery: The embedded tale within TAS, “The Moon Is On the Left,” also offered many interesting passages to translate, including a dramatic scene with rockfalls, flames, volleys of arrows, and lightning bolts indoors! My daily life doesn’t afford many chances to say rockfalls.

Deborah: One thing I liked about TAS was the fact that it WASN’T written in five volumes—when it very well could have been. On the other hand, there are a few aspects that I’m left wondering about and that I wouldn’t mind visiting in a sequel. What happened to the Kimyō Temple statuette? Did Akari’s first-life mother ever find out she came back to life? Are there any aspects you wanted to know more about, and has Kashiwaba written any other books to follow?

Deborah Iwabuchi and Avery Fischer Udagawa

Avery: Sachiko Kashiwaba has not published a sequel to TAS; I, like you, would certainly love to read more, especially about Akari’s former mother Ms. Ando. At the same time, I appreciate that certain things remain a mystery, and I too like that the book stands alone.

Kashiwaba has gone on to publish a number of other works, including the young adult/adult novel Misaki no mayoiga (The Abandoned House by the Cape), which takes place during and after the Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami of March 11, 2011. This book has recently been made into a play, and it is also the basis of an anime movie to be released in Japan in August 2021.

Kashiwaba’s other recent works include several fantasy novels, an adaptation of the beloved Tōno monogatari folk legends, and volumes in her long-running Monster Hotel series—rollicking early readers that bring together yokai and western-style monsters.

People interested in her earlier works can check out the film Spirited Away, influenced by her debut novel The Marvelous Village Veiled in Mist; and the film The Wonderland, based on another early book. We also have a blog post here at Ihatov with excerpts from a workshop that drew on her 2010 novel Tsuzuki no toshokan (The “What’s-Next” Library).

Deborah: The titles alone are fascinating! Thanks for sharing this book and your experiences with it, Avery. I hope we’ll be seeing more of Kashiwaba in translation before too long. Meanwhile, I’m heading out to look for rockfalls.

New Translations Presented at SCBWI Japan Showcase 2021

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

On April 9, 2021, SCBWI Japan held its first showcase of members’ new publications since January 2017. Sixteen books by thirteen members were presented, and a significant number were translations (seven books by five translators)!

The showcase was offered free of charge and teachers, librarians and other interested parties were—and are—invited. To view the recording of the session, follow the simple instructions here.

Here are the books recently published in translation that were showcased.

Kiki’s Delivery Service by Eiko Kadono, translated by Emily Balistrieri

The Beast Player and The Beast Warrior by Nahoko Uehashi, translated by Cathy Hirano

The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out by Yoshimi Kusaba, illustrated by Gaku Nakagawa, translated by Andrew Wong

1945←2015: Reflections on Stolen Youth, compiled by Motomi Murota and Naomi Kitagawa, translated by Deborah Iwabuchi

Of the remaining two, one is just out:

Soul Lanterns by Shaw Kuzki, translated by Emily Balistrieri

And the other will be out this summer:

Temple Alley Summer by Sachiko Kashiwaba, translated by Avery Fischer Udagawa.

We should be hearing more about both of them soon!

View the recording of SCBWI Japan Showcase 2021 to learn more about these and all of the books presented.

Interview with Michael Blaskowsky, Translator of Sato the Rabbit

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

The English version of Sato the Rabbit launches in the US today, nearly 15 years since Yuki Ainoya’s delightful picture book of a boy having adventures dressed like a rabbit was first published in Japan. I caught up with translator Michael Blaskowsky, a self-styled digital nomad, as he hopped across Wifi networks across the Pacific to find out more.

Translator Michael Blaskowsky with the Japanese title that started it all

Andrew (A): Hello Michael, thanks for joining us, and happy book birthday to Sato the Rabbit! For a start, how did you come across this book?

Michael (M): Seattle, oddly enough, was where my wife and I first came across Sato the Rabbit. After our son was born, we wanted to make sure we kept reading him Japanese books and thankfully Seattle and the surrounding cities—with their large Japanese/Japanese American population—stock a large variety of Japanese children’s books. My wife found Sato on the shelves one day and we loved the book so much that we bought the entire series the next time we went back to Japan. About a year later, we came across the US edition of Chirri & Chirra at a local library, which is how I learnt of Enchanted Lion Books, so I reached out to see if they were interested. They came back with a resounding yes and we’ve been working with them ever since.

A: Before we go any further, I notice “Shizuka Blaskowsky” is mentioned in the credits page.

M: Shizuka is my wife and very much a part of the Sato team. We discussed it and decided to list just my name for the English translation, but we wanted to make sure that she was credited as well, since we both love and worked on the series. She goes over everything I write and then we talk over every sentence, decide what best reflects the Japanese while flowing well in English, and work to find text that maintains the overall feel of the world. I translate and Shizuka edits, so while I am credited for translation, we’re certainly a team on this and every project.

A: It’s really heartening to hear about the strong family focus behind Sato, and I certainly agree that teamwork and collaboration play a big part in translation. Having seen Chirri & Chirra and then this book, something definitely clicked, so I’m not surprised Enchanted Lion took it up. Sato, though, isn’t a one-story 32-page picture book. Made up of seven separate episodes, I found each episode’s four spreads as imaginative, in a calming and dreamy sense, as the next. My younger daughter and I both like A Night of Stars, where Sato collects shooting stars to fill the observatory on a moonless night. I also like Forest Ice, especially the part about “sipping stories” in bed! Do you happen to have a favorite?

M: Picking one is really difficult. There are some that I like more than others, of course, and in the first book I love Walnuts and Forest Ice. I absolutely adore the creativity and the way that in only eight pages, some common, everyday action takes a fantastical turn to some dreamy place or event. I hope that it sinks into my son’s subconscious and inspires his imaginative play. If he mirrors a Sato story or the flow of the Sato world then I’ll have a huge grin on my face.

A: Speaking of mirrors, after reading both versions separately, putting the English and Japanese versions side by side felt like looking into a mirror. We thought we were reading it back to front, or even turning back time. The layout didn’t affect the translation, did it?

M: The layout was pretty straightforward. Very few things were changed, but as the Japanese text in columns reads right to left, sensible text placement for smooth reading flow is a little different than in English. It didn’t affect much, but we did swap locations of two images in Walnuts to match the text about Sato opening the walnut, to work better with the suspense of what he finds as people turn the page.

A: I thought the second and third pages of each vignette almost always involved a fantastical leap in thought! How did you go about translating the accompanying text?

M: I made the most literal translation of each sentence I could, then went back and tried to make it sound more interesting in English. I took each sentence and wrote down all the synonyms for each word or phrase in every sentence, then tried the combinations to see what I liked. As an example from A Window in the Sky, in the third and fourth pages, I played around with how “particularly”, “especially”, and “peculiarly” sounded with “clear” and “vivid”, like in “particularly vivid”. We went with “luminous” in the end, and while there was some talk about whether that word was too advanced for some readers, I like that more children’s books these days include larger words and so went with a more advanced word here. A counterexample might be in Forest of Ice. I started off with “melancholy” when describing the feelings of the blue ice, but we went with “sad” because it’s easier for kids to connect with.

A: It’s clear a lot was put into every word, and those choices also made Sato really enjoyable to read aloud, so I’m thinking that this was probably one aspect you particularly worked on. Were there any passages or sentiments that were challenging?

M: I really wanted the sentences to flow nicely and sound soothing when read aloud, plus I wanted to use alliteration and similar wordplay when possible (but not puns). Having a fun, imaginative English text that matched the fun, imaginative images was very important to me. I also tried to give everything in the book’s world as much agency as possible and to avoid expressions that conveyed that Sato was controlling the world or making things happen. Instead, I tried to show that he was interacting with the world and was generally rolling with the punches. The longer sentences were challenging, but thankfully Sato doesn’t contain many. Sometimes like when, in Forest Ice, Sato goes out for ice, the description of the ice is one long sentence. Japanese allows for much longer sentences and easier merging of clauses, so it was challenging trying to get all the information into the space without the sentence becoming too awkward. Claudia at Enchanted Lion was a big help with that, talking about how we wanted to phrase sentences so that we reflected the world Sato lives in using language that was natural and associable to children. All those conversations really helped hone the language and make enjoyable sentences that were true to the Japanese.

A: I certainly had fun joining Sato in interacting with his world, so I think you and your team have successfully conveyed the reading experience. As you said, Sato is the first of the series, and I already see a placeholder for the second one. Until then, thank you again for sharing!

#WorldKidLitMonth Interview: Andrew Wong on The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out

By Deborah Iwabuchi, Maebashi, Japan

Andrew Wong’s translation of the picture book The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out (from a Japanese edition by Yoshimi Kusaba, illustrated by Gaku Nakagawa) has just been published ★ in English by Enchanted Lion Books. Here, I interview Andrew about the story behind the translation.

Andrew Wong holds his translation The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out (center), the Japanese original (left), and a book about José Mujica, Uruguay’s 40th president.

Deborah: Hi, Andrew. Congratulations on your translation of The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out! I ordered the book and fell in love with it instantly. I’ve got lots of questions to ask you. First of all, how did you get involved with this project?

Andrew: Hooray, another reader! Well, my story begins at a bookstore in Tokyo one day. The cover struck me, so I picked it up and read it. I actually didn’t buy it the first time, but I was really drawn to the illustrations—the opening montage—and the very apparent messages. The initial montage works with a preface to introduce Mujica’s speech at the 2012 Rio+20 Earth Summit and build up his personality, particularly his generous, frugal ways, which make him so well-loved by many Uruguayans. Those first few pages set readers up to interpret his speech, expecting to hear something “new” from him.

Deborah: That opening sequence drew me in, too, but of course I was looking at your English version. (Allow me to digress…) I had to know what the Japanese version was, so I got a copy right away. In both versions, there’s a great humor in the way Mujica’s wife sends her husband off to Rio for the +20 Summit. In the Japanese, she gives him the affectionate but unvarying greeting you’d give anyone going off to work for the day and then tacks on a request in a lovely Japanese way that doesn’t translate well. “Good-bye dear. Please feed the chickens.” Andrew, you solved that neatly with “Stay safe and feed the chickens on your way out! (Have a good trip, but don’t expect me to do your chores, Mr. President).” Okay, sorry I interrupted your story! Please continue.

Andrew: About that greeting, I left it as what it means to me, which is quite literal. The fact that Mr. President feeds the chickens on his farm just builds on his character—a person who seeks to live like everyone else. Anyway, I read the book again. And again. And realized how much I wanted to share this. That started my search for how to get the book translated into English, which led me to the SCBWI Japan Translation listserv. Then, at SCBWI Japan Translation Day 2016, I met a literary agent from Japan UNI Agency, and Japan UNI hooked me up with Enchanted Lion. A lot of it was chance. (And I think Trump played a part.)

Deborah: 2016 was your first SCBWI Translation event, and there you connected with someone who found a publisher. That was serendipitous! So often connecting with the right people seems like good luck—and some of it probably is—but behind that is usually hard work and good planning. How did you go about the translation?

Andrew: I’m not sure if that was my first event, but it was quite early in my interactions with SCBWI. Anyway, translating the short speech didn’t take very long, and I usually start with a very literal draft. But before revising, I needed more perspective, and I found it in the opening pages of the book. After some forensic work, I found out that Mujica spoke around 8 p.m. in June at the Summit where the Recycled Orchestra of Cateura had also performed (another picture book!). Anyway, that helped to eventually ground the English in environmental and social issues, which were rooted in capitalist greed, competition, and consumerism. Besides reading more on Mujica to understand his ideas better, my search for an English publisher also led me to a Traditional Chinese version (I read and speak Chinese), which had backmatter from reviewers on being content with what you have.

Deborah: I’d like to hear about the difference with the Chinese version. Was it just the backmatter or was the book itself changed at all?

Andrew: The backmatter made the difference. My initial impressions were really close to the Chinese interpretation, perhaps stemming from my Chinese Singaporean roots. So when the editors at Enchanted Lion and I dwelled on how the text could be affected by cultural perspectives, we dug deeper into the many arguments in the speech. A lot had been packed into a speech that lasted just 10 minutes. It touched on many difficult concepts—capitalism, competition, consumerism, economic growth, desire, poverty, happiness—so we realized there was room left to interpretation. To top it off, it drew on philosophy! Along the way, we also referred to the original Spanish, and it guided how we wanted to convey the speech—with clarity and passion.

Deborah (eyes popping out a little bit): So, going back to Mujica’s original speech in Spanish helped iron out some important nuances—after working with the Japanese and Chinese versions of the book.

Andrew: I did share the perspective from the two versions (as far as I know, there’s a Korean one too!), and initially I stuck close to the Japanese because we thought it was going to be straightforward. But I didn’t succeed in making polite Japanese sound quite as passionate. So we worked on the tone based on the original Spanish. As I said, there were many ideas in the speech, so we took a long, deep look because we didn’t want to leave things ambiguous. The editors and I kept a conversation going, exchanging emails in spurts over a few months, and eventually grounded the book in environmental and social issues. I believe that gave us a way to tie things together and wrap it all up nicely for everyone. It was a long and rewarding collaborative thought process, and I am grateful to everyone who was involved in shaping the English into what it is, because I certainly couldn’t have done it alone.

Deborah: No matter how long I translate, it’s always a surprise to find out how much effort and thought is required to change a book—one that seems quite straightforward—from one language to another. Did you find it necessary to simplify anything so that children could understand it? I see the target age is 8 to 12.

Andrew: Even though I don’t understand Spanish, I think the Japanese picture book did the hard work of making the difficult concepts accessible to children. Also, don’t you think Nakagawa’s illustrations work so well with the text to build a compelling argument? They also add perspective, for example, about how competition is about outdoing each other (not building each other up); how economic “growth” is driven by a fear of recession, leaving a pile of trash while a wise man stands above; and the importance of happiness for the family, livestock and all. I can go on, because there is so much to talk about in each and every spread. (My favorite is the baby in the cosmos!)

Deborah: I absolutely agree with you. I love the illustrations. I can see how they would help children understand what Mujica is saying! Now, your mention of the sweet baby in the cosmos brings me to a question I’ve got to ask. When I picked up your English translation of the book, I flipped through and was so impressed with the glorious diversity the illustrations represented. And then I got the Japanese version, and my jaw fell. To mention just a few of the differences, in the Japanese version, all the drivers in the smoggy traffic jam were men in Sikh turbans, the sweatshop workers were all brown, and the happy family of farmers and the sweet baby in the cosmos were all white! What was your role in the fortunate shift to inclusion in the English version?

Andrew: To be honest, I didn’t see the problem initially, but one day Enchanted Lion contacted me saying the Indian people caught in traffic were all unhappy Sikh men. And then the rest became easy to spot. I think the time we took to keep talking also gave us the chance to see and correct the problem, especially for a diverse readership. That experience has made me read more consciously, but I still remind myself to be constantly vigilant about stereotypes and my own biases because I don’t think I realize fast enough when they surface. (I’d be grateful to hear anyone point them out.) By the way, I’m delighted at the way the happy family at the end sits with the inclusive closing!

Deborah: The illustration of the diverse family ended the book for me on a very satisfying note. I was exhilarated and I could feel the dedication to Mujica’s words that everyone involved in making the book must have had. Any other bumps in the road you’d like to share?

Andrew: Well, to start, this was a translation of a translation. So when I was alerted to an existing English translation of the original speech online, I was really thankful, but it also got me worried. Once we were certain that the Japanese we were working from was a distinct work—an adaptation of the speech for children—the existence of another English translation became a non-issue. Enchanted Lion also provided input from the original speech in Spanish, which obviously helped in the revisions. The other huge bump was of course the ongoing pandemic, which has also impacted publishing. The launch date got pushed back a few times, so I’m glad it’s finally out. Hopefully more and more people get to read it and talk about the issues in the book, and, of course, Uruguay’s well-loved former President. It was some journey, and it continues, so I’d be happy to hear from readers!

Deborah: Thanks so much for taking the time to share all of this, Andrew. This is a gem of a book in so many ways, and learning about the background of the English version has been a fascinating lesson in how much goes into creating a translation.

The Japanese version of The World’s Poorest President Speaks Out is Sekai de ichiban mazushii daitoryo no supiichi, Choubunsha Publishing (2014). 

“Festival Time” in The Best Asian Short Stories 2018

By Malavika Nataraj, Singapore
 
It’s hard to believe that January 2019 is almost over, but the month wouldn’t be complete without some exciting news to share! Avery Fischer Udagawa’s translation of the short story “Festival Time,” a tale for middle grade readers and up by Yamagata-born author Ippei Mogami, illustrated by Saburo Takada, has been featured in The Best Asian Short Stories of 2018 anthology, published by Kitaab of Singapore.
 
“Festival Time” takes place in young Masashi’s village, where plans for a spring festival are derailed because of seasonal labour migration, as farmers go to cities in search of more lucrative work. In a write-up that appeared in the Japan Times earlier this month, Udagawa said that she appreciated how Mogami told the story through a child’s eyes, and how the author handled the boy’s relationship with both his grandmother, who has dementia, and an elder with “crying palsy.”
 
Read more on “Festival Time” at Words and Pictures, the online magazine of SCBWI British Isles.

Isao Takahata of Studio Ghibli Dies

By Sako Ikegami, Kobe

Isao Takahata, co-founder of Japan’s most famous animation company, Studio Ghibli, and director of the poignant film Grave of the Fireflies, passed away last week on April 5, 2018, at the age of 82. Unlike his famous partner, Hayao Miyazawa, Takahata’s works were not as flamboyantly cinematic, yet they were no less memorable or moving, addressing deeply personal themes related to childhood—its struggles and its tender beauty—often reflected upon in retrospect.

Image from Grave of the Fireflies (Toho/The Atlantic)

Grave of the Fireflies is based on a short story by Akiyuki Nosaka (1930-2015), based in turn on the author’s experience of the World War II bombings in Kobe. Takahata survived a similar bombing at the age of nine in neighboring Okayama prefecture, where he spent his childhood, and drew upon his experience in creating the movie.

Most recently, Takahata’s film The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, based on Taketori monogatari, an ancient fairytale written during the Heian era (794-1185) and popularized as a children’s story, was nominated for an Academy Award in 2015.

Participants in SCBWI Japan Translation Day 2016 translated excerpts of Grave of the Fireflies for a workshop with Ginny Tapley Takemori, translator of Nosaka’s The Whale that Fell in Love with a SubmarineGrave of the Fireflies is forthcoming in English translation from Pushkin Press.

Online obituaries for Isao Takahata: NPRIGNSlate, The Atlantic.

An Unexpected Music: The Beast Player

Review by Alexander O. Smith, Kamakura

Fans of Nahoko Uehashi have had a long wait for another book in English translation from the internationally acclaimed fantasy author since the publication of the second volume of the Moribito series in 2009. The Beast Player is not a continuation of that, but the first English entry in an entirely new story that already spans four volumes in Japanese. Available as of March 1st from Pushkin Press, The Beast Player collects the first two volumes of the series with translation into English courtesy of Cathy Hirano, who also translated the Moribito books.

Right: Nahoko Uehashi (Goodreads)

The Beast Player follows the story of Elin, the green-eyed daughter of a “beast doctor” who looks after the Toda—massive, scaled creatures ridden into battle by the Toda warriors. Elin and her mother’s eyes mark them as members of a secretive tribe of wanderers called the Ahlyo, though her mother renounced her tribal affiliations to live amongst the Toda Stewards.

In the first half of the book, we learn how Elin comes to leave her home and settle into a new life under the care of Joeun, a lapsed academic who has taken up beekeeping. We are also introduced to some of the other major players in the world: the Yojeh, an empress who acts as the political and spiritual leader of the land, and the Aluhan, a duke who commands armies faithful to the Yojeh to protect their borders. The second half follows Elin as she rises through the ranks of students at Kazalumu, a sanctuary where they care for Royal Beasts—fantastical creatures that look something like giant wolves with wings.

Along the way, we occasionally step into the viewpoint of other characters, such as Ialu, one of a cohort of bodyguards who serve the Yojeh for life (a life often cut short by an assassin’s arrow—not all is well in the Yojeh’s realm), and Esalu, the headmistress at the sanctuary. Those with difficulty keeping the large cast of characters straight will be happy to hear there is a list at the beginning of the book that includes a family tree for the Yojeh’s royal family.

Uehashi’s story is an intriguing blend of many elements that will be familiar to fans of contemporary western fantasy—a strong female lead, a school for gifted students, the challenges of taming fantastical creatures—and other details that will feel more specifically Japanese, like meals of steamed rice and miso, and an emperor considered by many of her subjects to be divine.

One of the cornerstones of fantasy is worldbuilding, and here The Beast Player does not disappoint. Perhaps taking cues from her earlier work as an anthropologist, Uehashi lays out the tribal affiliations and politics of her world with clarity and depth. Class plays a large role in the story as well, with details such as dress and occupation following the internal logic of a carefully crafted fictional society. This enables the main narrative thread following Elin’s attempts at inter-species communication with the Royal Beasts via playing a hand-made harp to function as a kind of allegory for communication across barriers of class and race.

Language is an aspect of fantasy worldbuilding that can either be treated as an afterthought or, as is the case in Tolkien’s Middle Earth, an integral part of the story. In The Beast Player, we learn early on that the name for Elin’s people, the Ahlyo, is a bastardization of their true name, “Ao-Loh,” meaning “Guardians of the Oath.” The oath, we are told, was sworn by their people to never repeat a terrible mistake made long in the past. This is the first glimpse we are given of a secret history that is frequently hinted at throughout the story, the knowledge of which ultimately comes to play a role in informing our heroine’s actions.

Somewhat challenging is the terminology in the book. In the opening, many aspects of caring for the Toda are described with capitalized words: the Ponds, the Chambers, the Law. There are also words in an indeterminate language, such as the tokujisui medicine administered to the Toda, and political terms—the Chief Steward, the Aluhan—that can be a bit confusing at first. Here again, I turned back to the list of characters at the beginning to keep everything straight.

Thankfully, the prose is more than strong enough to carry the reader through those initial speed bumps. Hirano is a gifted stylist, and the combination of her deft word choice with Uehashi’s evocative images keeps the story flowing while bringing us moments of lyrical beauty.

In a market glutted with streamlined page-turners that take more hints from Hollywood than the classics of fantasy, The Beast Player, with its leisurely paced, meandering storytelling, can feel at times like a throwback. And yet, opening a doorway to different takes on familiar genres is exactly the aim of Pushkin Children’s Books. Given the alternative of shelves laden with dystopian Hunger Games clones I’m glad that Pushkin and Hirano opened that door and let The Beast Player, like its titular character, make an unexpected music of its own.

Right: Cathy Hirano (Skye Hohmann for BookBlast®)

Novel by Andersen Laureate to Launch in English

By Avery Fischer Udagawa, Bangkok

Happy Year of the Dog! SCBWI Japan translator member Cathy Hirano has translated The Beast Player by Nahoko Uehashi, winner of the international Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing (“little Nobel”) in 2014. This novel will launch in English in March 2018 in the UK, and subsequently in the US.

UK publisher Pushkin Children’s describes The Beast Player as a fantasy novel for ages 10 and up, in which heroine Elin must prevent beloved beasts from being used as tools of war.

Uehashi’s prior publications in English are the YA novels Moribito: Guardian of the Spirit and Moribito II: Guardian of the Darkness, which won the Batchelder Award and a Batchelder Honor, respectively, in the US. A resource list about the Moribito books, Uehashi, and Hirano appears hereThe Beast Player is available for preorder globally in paperback and ebook.

 

World Kid Lit Month Review: It Might Be An Apple by Shinsuke Yoshitake

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

Shinsuke Yoshitake’s witty and amusing picture books have enjoyed a growing following since his debut title Ringo kamoshirenaiIt Might Be An Apple—appeared in Japan in 2013. Since clinching the Art Award at the 61st Sankei Juvenile Literature Publishing Culture Awards in 2014, this title has also been published in Chinese, Dutch, French, Korean, Swedish, and English (by Thames & Hudson, 2015).

Left: UK edition of It Might Be An Apple. Right: Shinsuke Yoshitake (Belio.com).

In It Might Be An Apple, Yoshitake turns an entirely mundane non-event on its head: A boy comes home to find an apple sitting on the table. His imagination jumpstarts a mish-mash of stories and plots, about what the apple might contain inside, what it might actually be, or what it could have been and could turn into. (Click on the cover above to see illustrations.) Taking things a step further, the boy wonders if the apple has desires, wishes and feelings, and whether it has a family.

Driven by an imagination that is simply inspired, the boy ponders how the apple ended up on the table, where it might have been before that, and where it might be planning to go. A bit of fear takes hold when the boy suspects that the “apple” was just waiting for a chance to take the boy’s own place in the world, or was deviously put there as kid-bait.

Eventually, hunger pangs rein in the boy’s want-away thoughts, and he gives the apple a mighty bite. He reunites with reality and the apple as it is.

The English translation stays close to the spirit of Yoshitake’s quirky original, retaining the sense of humor while offering a few subtle variations. The fun of shaping the rooms of an apple-house (by eating through its walls) is expressed by a pitch for the best house ever, complete with edible interior! The culture gap of the distant-yet-familiar Japanese ancestor is bridged by a grandma in apple disguise. Finally, a spread with all apple-kinds lined up according to a Japanese kana table, in the original, sports creative renaming in English based on the apples’ shapes and appearances.

Both the original and the translation let us journey into the world of imagination, and show us the plenitude of stories our minds can conjure at a whim.

 

 

Other English translations of Yoshitake’s work include What Happens Next? and Can I Build Another Me? (Thames & Hudson) as well as Still Stuck (Abrams), for which the original Mo nugenai (Bronze Publishing, 2015) won a Special Mention at the 2017 Bologna Children’s Book Fair Bologna Ragazzi Awards. Still Stuck is released in the US today. Happy World Kid Lit Month!

Andrew Wong joined the SCBWI Japan Translation Group listserv in 2015, when in search of a community focused on translated books for children. A business translator by trade, he finds time to introduce Japanese picture books and stories that speak to him on his blog, in hopes that they will one day find a worldwide audience.

Kenji Miyazawa’s Poem of Strength, Now a Bilingual Picture Book

By Andrew Wong, Tokyo

Enduring poetry lends itself to being read and reread over time, as it becomes colored by the issues of the day. The poem Ame ni mo makezu by Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) heartened many people after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, which struck Miyazawa’s home region of Tohoku six years ago this month.

Miyazawa’s poem has since come out in a bilingual picture book edition: Rain Won’t. Translated by poet Arthur Binard and illustrated by Oscar-nominated animator Koji Yamamura, Rain Won’t first presents the text in its original vein and then reframes it in contemporary context, in an afterword.

Translated in first-person verse, this rendering immediately compels the reader to identify with the poet’s aspirations, at times adding sentiments implied in the original, at others preferring subtlety over wordy literalism. If Binard’s text stays true to the determined tone of the original, then Yamamura’s illustrations flesh out images of farmland and nature in Tohoku’s Iwate prefecture, which Miyazawa would have known so well.

On the cover is Mt. Iwate in the distance, and readers will just about make out a person walking past some stalks of rice in the rain toward paddies in the distance. Hidden in plain sight are other living creatures—a frog, a bee, a grasshopper. Together they frame the poem in its intended setting. The person remains at a distance in the book, acting as a guide or a projection of the poet’s aspirations, only coming at the end to stand close to the reader.


Translator Arthur Binard (photo by Kelia Li), animator-illustrator Koji Yamamura (profile photo). 


 

This textual and visual presentation is followed by Binard’s afterword, an interpretation of the poem post-March 11. It reframes and explains how the poem should serve not only as a source of strength, but also as a reminder and a rallying cry.

The book acknowledges other English translations of Ame ni mo makezu. Among them is “Strong in the Rain,” which accompanied actor Ken Watanabe’s reading of the piece on YouTube just four days after the earthquake (video from kizuna311.com), and “Unbeaten by Rain” which was read on April 11, 2011, in the interfaith service “A Prayer for Japan” at Washington National Cathedral (begins at 29:22 in video from cathedral.org).

Published in 2013 on the day the original poem is dated—November 3—Rain Won’t is available from Japan in the Japanese/English bilingual edition, and in Chinese and Korean editions.